Seven Great Flies for the Boston Metropolitan Area

Seven Great Flies for the Boston Metropolitan Area

And a girl with a Subaru Justy...

  • By: Michael Doherty
  • Photography by: Fred Thomas
Traver Award

One evening in mid-may, Jenny Muldoon caught her first largemouth bass, on an orange popper. That beautiful three-pounder fell for a really ugly fly. We tied that popper together, figuring how best to hold everything on the hook, how a whip knot should go. It’s hard to tie a knot when you’re reading about it.

The popper had a tail of Labrador hair bound with unraveling cotton, my work. Her contribution? The cork head and body, with legs—strings of rubber band—that emerged, like the hook, from hand-drilled holes. She tamped everything in place with toothpicks tipped with glue, snapped them close, rubbed the ragged edges flush with a nail file. She painted it a malignant orange, with a nail polish called Tangerine made by GlamorUSA, located in West Memphis, Arkansas. She called the fly, predictably, Tangerine, and that popper, the first fly we ever tied, fooled more than one Jamaica Pond bass.

In late May, Jenny Muldoon fished Houghton’s Pond with a leech fly not far from where they rope it off for summer swimmers. We were in an inflatable boat purchased at a store known for low-cost items. You’ve seen those scarlet rafts in the advertising materials of Sunday’s Globe, particularly if, like Jenny and myself, you were looking for some great pre-summer bargains for motivated shoppers. It was the first thing besides movie tickets and meals we bought together.

It retailed for $19.99, i.e. cheap as in flimsy, not a bargain. It came with two pieces of only one oar that you screwed together, which we did, day one. The oar warped in the sunlight-filled wayback of her monkey-shit-brown 1990 Subaru Justy, where it sat for six days, screwed up tight, waiting for date night on Houghton’s Pond. Printed on the boat’s box were instructions regarding proper inflation, safety, mandatory Coast Guard warnings and so on. Inside that box was a patch, a Tegaderm of clear vinyl so pathetic that Jenny had already replaced it in favor of an old emergency roll of edge-fuzzed and conventionally gray duct tape.

I was familiar with that duct tape. She had like five rolls of it back there, and when we were fooling around in that cramped, three-doored, three-cylindered, oil-hungry Subaru Justy in the parking structure of the mall where we got the boat two hours before, various edges of those rolls stuck to me. See, after we got the boat, we shared a nice meal at Bertucci’s—pizza, beer, cheesecake. We had an hour to kill before Mrs. Doubtfire screened at the mall’s attached five-screened cineplex. (We first met there, at the movies, to see her pick, A River Runs Through It, which is a two-thumbs-up serious fly-fishing movie that mentions none of the secret flies or fishing hotspots featured in this story.) Anyway, we’re back there in the Justy and edges of duct tape attached themselves to hairs, my hairs. Although I laughed at Mrs. Doubtfire in her/his dress battling various hilarious situations, my chuckles were tempered by remnants of duct-tape glues that bridged hairs and clothes. The movie? One thumb up, I laughed till it hurt.

Back to the fly, the leech, number two. Jenny carefully clipped fur from her once-favorite stuffed animal: Krystal, her forlorn three-legged unicorn. She tied hers sparse, like the guy on the fly-tying video said. Not me, though, I chopped Krystal’s mane, with justification that plump flies catch big fish. Jenny disagreed.

“Thurman Sturgis clearly caught fish with what he tied, why doubt him? He’s the most famous non-Canadian fly fisherman ever. Look at his leech catching those fish.”

The credits rolled, with footage of heavily-bearded Thurman Sturgis watching his reel kick up a rooster spray as some leech-sucking fish took him to his backing, a great “I told you so” smile on his face. Later they had bloopers, a longer-than-needed rub-it-in showing the dozens of strikes he kept missing, each failed set punctuated with a bleeped-out expletive and a “can you ’effin believe this” grinning head shake that only Sasquatch or Thurman Sturgis could pull off without you hating him.

Jenny threw that Unicorn Leech, a slim little wisp of a thing, toward the deep end of the swimming area, right up where the milfoil starts. She hooked a football of a rainbow trout that had probably once been broodstock. It was an ugly unicorn-killing brute of a thing, demented and dark as though it had already been smoked, with a tail all beat and curved like the fish ended with a flogged-up capital ‘D.’ She wished him luck and let him go.

The very last weekend of may, we took a 26-mile trip to Lowell. Down the canyon between the Industrial Revolution-era factories, below a fragile-looking dam, near the canal, she caught Merrimac River shad. This third fly she tied was a shad dart. She duplicated what the pony-tailed guy showed her at Neponset Circle Bait and Tackle. Tied it from memory and used a different color of nail polish this time, something called Nuclear Winter, even though it was more of a Granny Smith green.

“Colors for atomic disasters should be gray, like duct tape,” I said. “A better name would be ‘Wenatchee Green.’ That’s where the bulk of the United States apple crop grows, in the Wenatchee River Valley. They got steelhead in the Wenatchee, big ones, we should go. When we, you know, get rich.”

During my monologue, she just cast more.

I fished the Unicorn Leech or the Tangerine and caught nothing in the middle of a perfect spring day in Lowell, Massachusetts. She pulled in shad after shad under a massive mill’s brick wall, covered in graffiti, some of it legible. She unhooked a plankable shad, let it go, and read off the wall:

“Goodeye Jack Kerouac.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Goodeye Jack Kerouac’?”

“Maybe the stem of the b peeled off, and the ‘e’ was just sloppy spraying.”

More casts.

“Maybe it was a gang disagreement, some kind of old-school literary difference, you know, the ‘b’ in ‘goodbye’ changed to an ‘e’.”

“Them’s fighting words,” she said.

“Maybe this is a gang border between Robert Lowell sympathizers and Jack Kerouac thugs?”

“I guess, excepting Robert Lowell was from Beverly, the Back Bay or Mattapoisett. Not Lowell.”

I pictured respirator-wearing, asthmatic, draft-dodging, depressed, confessional poetry acolytes of Robert Lowell furtively tagging anti-Kerouac sentiments on these factory walls (Kerouac is Lowell’s only novelist). Later, truck-bed or boxcar dwelling, flannel-clad Kerouac-worshipping bums change the “b” to an “e” with alcohol-steadied hands. Cans spray Brick Red, Sunshine Yellow and Wenatchee Green. Cans carefully wrapped back in kerchiefs, in turn knotted on hobo sticks, hoisted over shoulders and away the bums go, off to rail yards where slow freights take them to points southwest, the wild Thoreau Territories of Walden Pond, Lexington, Concord and beyond . . . .

Jenny shouted me out of the absurd daydream with the universal fisherman’s boast:

“I got one!”

Here’s a photo of her, that day, see it here, she’s got a shad on, beautiful, right? I didn’t catch fish, though. She only tied two of them, two Nuclear Winters, snapped off one, and tied the other one straight on. I should have tied some myself.

She kidded me, “No halfway sane shad will hit a tangerine-colored bass popper, you dope.”

“That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.”

In the movie version of this story, the love song “Dirty Old Town” would play right now:

I met my love by the gas works wall,

Dreamed a dream by the old canal,

Kissed a girl by the factory wall,

Dirty old town,

Dirty old town

I kissed her that spring day.

In june, jenny muldoon met roger borgault in a Medford tackle hut. He showed her a streamer fly she could tie for striped bass. Roger got us fishing the salt. Handsome, young, smart, he fished often on account of lucrative jobs that didn’t require him to do much. He didn’t say much about Canada, his country, and we weren’t about to open that can of worms, no sir. He told us to get waders, to think about buying reliable gear, having seen our cheap stuff, and how that would make the fishing more fun. Serious guys like Roger can suggest (or criticize) a lot, but Jenny told him straight up, we couldn’t afford high-quality reliable gear.

Much of June, Roger called her a bunch to give her fly-tying advice. She took the calls in the other room, which was polite of her as I was trying to get through what was proving a pretty complex and riveting series of videos on hydroelectric power systems from around the world. To think of all the fishing opportunities created by our international need for electricity!

We tied those streamer flies out of green and white furs taken from her collection of rabbit feet. Circa 1978, dyed and dried rabbit feet were good luck charms. You no longer see them these days on account of rabbits being cute and thought of only as pets or harbingers of Easter, a holiday that historically has nothing to do with rabbits, but can often coincide with three-day opening weekends. Jeez, these rabbit-footed flies we tied were no longer than my pinky and I thought they looked too small for stripers, which get big.

She said, “Roger said schoolies hit anything. Roger says this: Mash the barb, it’s all you need.”

I stopped tying mine, no point arguing with serious Roger channeled through serious Jenny. I instead watched the series on Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and how it buried tombs, mummies, scrolls, ghosts and stuff under a lake as big as Erie, providing enough power for all of Egypt.

Jenny, irritated now, said loud, “The Nile always powered all of Egypt, I don’t get it. I don’t get why they don’t talk more about how the dams screw up fish, the environment, or the floodplains below . . . .”

She was right, of course, I know that now. But if there were no dams, there would be no places like Lowell, no memories like late May.

I begged off the trip she and roger planned. When she returned, Borgault’s Streamer was apparently good luck with a barbless hook buried in it. Roger was a gentleman. He had taken her out on a powerboat to some tidal sea-grass and estuarine mazes behind Plum Island where no one goes but fish, eels and birds. They caught striper schoolies until their arms hurt and the tide changed.

That’s all I remember her saying about that trip. I was distracted by a video about the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in Australia. They stocked trout and landlocked salmon behind their dams. Apparently there’s a town called Adaminaby on the edge of the coldwater, trout-filled Lake Eucumbene.

Jenny stared, watching too. “Ad—a—min—a—bee, that’s five syllables, how insane would it be to live in a place with a five-syllable name? Australians sound weird, way worse than Canadians. They make these statements that sound like questions? Plus they have names that are impossible to say. Eucumbene . . . Adaminaby, see, that’s just weird.”

I didn’t say much about her monologue. Where Australians stood on unicorns is anyone’s guess, they liked introducing non-native fish though, and I knew they universally thought of rabbits as pests. They would never consider a rabbit’s foot or Borgault’s Streamer, fly number four, as good luck. I’d agree with them there.

The Blues Bomber, number five, was about as simple a tie as it got. What you do is you get your old broom, one with nylon bristles, preferably with ends all split. You get like 15 bristles, cut ’em about two, three inches long, put a dab of superglue on your 1/0 hook up by the eye, lay the bristles around it, and then you bind it all tight, tight as you can, with a pea-size ball of unwaxed, unminted dental floss, whipped tight up top and fixed with still more superglue. Then you stripe it with a marker. I dreamed this one up. Don’t squeeze the floss head till it’s dry, I figured that out the hard way.

I don’t know as much about the Columbia and Snake rivers’ hydroelectric systems (into which the apple-nurturing, steelhead-friendly Wenatchee River incidentally flows) or the migratory-fish-harming effects of those dams as I should, on account of the remote control’s fast-forward being superglued in place along with parts of my thumb and index finger, which had just squeezed the head of my Blues Bomber to, you know, see if it was dry yet. Jenny Muldoon used a Q-tip dipped in nail polish remover to separate me and the remote. Ever since then you can’t surf down the channels, only up, with that remote, and there’s no recognizable symbol or function for fast-forward. Why, when you get to be with Jenny Muldoon, would you ever want to fast-forward anyways?

She called me an idiot then and didn’t laugh. She striped up the bristles on her Blues Bomber with another nail polish, this one a glittering purple type popular with Mattapan girls who gave it the street name Bamboozler. She knew all this because she overheard it on the Orange Line train, and again on the Red Line, which gets you to UMass Boston.

Jeez was it fun to throw that fly off the UMass wall into a mess of foraging bluefish that July. We didn’t really land any. They spooled us, bit through leaders, broke us off before we could get anywhere. I have never had a fishing day so good. But Jenny was distracted and not nearly as thrilled. When I asked her why, she didn’t say much apart from how Roger would have put on a wire leader and that Roger says chasing bluefish with flies, on trout rods like we had, isn’t really smart, let alone as fun or as elegant as chasing striped bass. He apparently had a rigid hierarchy of fish to pursue, kind of like I had a hierarchy of countries that were whacky (#1 Canada, #2 Egypt, #3 Australia, #4 USA, etc.).

I saw her smile, just a glint, when she watched me whooping it up. See, I threw the last of the Blues Bombers into a boil of pogies. They were getting absolutely hammered by bluefish, herded against the UMass wall, oils from the ambushed fish rising to the top, slicking out a sheen, which in turn stopped the wind from ruffling the water. I set the hook on a snapper blue that got savaged by its bigger brother. I reeled in a yellow-eyed head, no body, the toothy jaw still working slightly, grinding those bamboozled bristles. They’re a tremendously violent fish, bluefish. The superglue held, I was/am proud of that, and although my skin-lacking thumb was feeling a salt sting, it was a good hurt. Two thumbs up! Hot damn, the Bamboozler, it’s a better name than the Blues Bomber, and off the UMass wall of all places, I mean c’mon, you can barely even back-cast on account of rollerbladers!

So we’re up to the sixth fly then. A doldrums fly for a Boston Metropolitan Area August, when only panfish bite. We tied this one up based on a pattern from the magazine Roger Borgault had sent Jenny a birthday subscription to. She asked me if I was jealous, and frankly I wasn’t. If that’s what she wanted, Roger Borgault, his quality gear, his glossy technicolor magazines, that boat with a propeller, and non-semi-urban fishing opportunities (i.e. all of Canada), then I would be happy for her. I couldn’t offer that. I didn’t tell her my suspicions that Roger Borgault might be a very conflicted USA-loving Québec separatist. Why stir the pot? She looked sort of puzzled/pleased by my response.

Michael Doherty is a neurologist who works in Seattle and specializes in the treatment of epilepsy. Besides fly-fishing, he writes for fun, when his kids and wife are asleep. He received Fly Rod & Reel’s 2008 Robert Traver Award for his story “The Shining Path,” and was Fly Rod & Reel’s 2010 Rusty Gates Memorial Award winner for the story “The Marble Run.” His fiction has also appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal and Neurology. His favorite waters include the beaches of Puget Sound, for sea run cutthroat, and the Yakima, St. Joe and Cedar rivers. He recently upgraded from a miserable inflatable boat like the one in this story to a kayak.

Anyway, the doldrums fly, this thing was complicated, a kind of pre-foam flying terrestrial beetle. It had wings made from a ziplock bag, and a fox-hair body. Jenny used the silk threads Roger gave her to tie it fancy. Hers was exactly like the picture in the magazine, and mine? Not even close. The wings looked like they belonged on a pinwheel.

We took those beetle flies, the inflatable boat, a bag of charcoal, hotdogs, buns and marshmallows—along with Roger Borgault—to Cochituate State Park, which straddles Interstate 90, The Mass Pike, the beloved interstate of fly fishermen from the Lower 48. She and Roger paddled out around the point, presumably to less-fished areas where crappie and pumpkinseeds hang out, unthreatened by children with pre-snelled heavily-barbed Eagle Claw hooks attached to corn on one end and a Zebco kit on the other. They took a long time. The Cochituate Beetle must have fished pretty well. By the time they returned the coals had burned down to those furnace embers that get your hotdog done in two minutes or less, any longer and it pretty much sublimates.

When they came back the boat had some strips of duct tape on it, because, as Jenny put it, they got into pickerel trouble. These razor-toothed fish ripped into that sad coracle, deflating it. Roger and Jenny had to repair the raft, tape the slashes, blow it up again. She talked about a nightmarish pickerel, and showed me, with a trembling hand, the leader that got ravaged by a monster.

Roger Borgault had a funny, probably Canadian way of eating a hotdog, all quiet, looking at his feet, like he actually cared what it tasted like. He mumbled something about hemostats, which at the time sounded like crazy Québec talk to me. I let it go. The dogs were perfectly done, tiger-striped like perch, the buns just a little toasted but still moist inside. Jenny crammed her hotdog in her mouth and insisted I come out to where the pickerel were. So I did, the one warped oar creaking with what is a really inefficient way to paddle this raft-boat thing.

You get wet paddling an under-inflated raft with one oar. Assess sag it down, and the blade has to pass over the center of the boat every other stroke to stay sort of on a straight line. I took my soaked shirt off, which was a mistake, given my underarm, in the process of paddling first one side and then the other, had eroded corners of the duct taped areas, exposing the glues beneath, which in turn, and again, trapped hairs and caused me a considerable amount of pain. She laughed at me, with me, we both laughed.

“Is Roger OK?”

“He’s just sad.”

“Should I ask?”

“Nope.”

“OK.”

“I got something for you though. I tied these. For you.”

There they were, the six flies she and/or I could tie, lined up in a small box, a gift. The six flies of our nine-months-long relationship. These were, as far as we were concerned, 1993’s Top Six Flies to Fish the Boston Metropolitan Area. There was also a seventh fly, a grasshopper.

We’d seen it in Roger’s magazine, Canadian Fly Tier & XC Skier. He left it behind when I was working one weekend. Jenny said she didn’t think she could tie it. She and I had stared at it, oriented the magazine vertically, fly-tying porn, a hopper and its ugly cousin, the dropper, in the centerfold, both flies embedded in mouth corners of genetically obscene Québecois fish. Jenny must have got a notion, because she figured the tie out, maybe with Roger but certainly without me.

Hoppers and droppers were supposed to be flies seven and eight for a trip to the relatively wild Upper Charles River, where I-90 and 128 meet, come September. A trip for brown trout, a fish we had yet to catch. She’d tied a length of tippet on the hopper’s hook for the dropper obscured below the other flies. She tied a ring where the eighth fly should have been.

Jenny Muldoon asked me to marry her there, in the middle of Lake Cochituate. She asked me in the slow summer twilight filled with barbecue smells while floating in that $19.99 pool toy with a moderate air leak. You could hear cars on the Mass Pike a quarter-mile away, somewhere closer a massive pickerel lurked below us with a fly in his craw. She was a good deal: She had a Subaru Justy, we could go places, she liked to fish, she could tie flies, she knew her poets, she was beautiful. Of course you know what I said.

The Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, sponsored by the John D. Voelker Foundation and presented by Fly Rod & Reel, each year recognizes “distinguished original essays or works of short fiction that embody an implicit love of fly-fishing, respect for the sport and the natural world in which it takes place, and high literary values.”